Commencement Annunciations

The month of June brings many fresh smells, among them, the best is the smell of fresh thoughts being given to the new graduates by politicians, celebrities, poets, actors, chefs, soldiers, scientists, journalists, heads of state, astronauts, religious leaders and many more that doted the scene of American universities graduate ceremonies. This year was significant because this was the first post 9/11 class to graduate. The best annunciations came from Tom Hanks and Samuel Bodman.

The Sept. 11 attacks and the war on terrorism dominated speeches again on hundreds of college campuses this spring as an estimated a million students who were freshmen in 2001 received their diplomas. At Texas A&M, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who until last summer served as the top commander in Iraq, compared the challenges posed by the war on terror to those that face corporate, judicial and academic leaders. Vice President Dick Cheney drew cheers at the Air Force Academy when he said, "This is a war we are winning." Many other speakers warned of the erosion of civility, loss of political liberties and outright threats to the rule of law that have emerged over the last four years.

President Bush addressed two graduation ceremonies, offering significantly different messages. At Calvin College, a Christian institution in Michigan, he praised community groups across America that bring "people together for the common good" and urged graduates to work in them to strengthen grass-roots democracy. At the Naval Academy, he said that the Pentagon's extraordinary new weapons systems were "transforming war in our favor." He urged the graduating midshipmen not only to fight the terrorists but also to help "transform our military for the 21st century, so we can deter and defeat the new adversaries who may threaten our people in the decades ahead."

Not all speakers, of course, dwelt on terrorism. Many speeches were feel-good exercises dominated by homilies and truisms. Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC's "Hardball" program, combined advice and humor. He counseled students to travel widely before settling down, and he recalled how he once heard Nelson Mandela "tell a story of the first Christmas eve, how St. Joseph begged the innkeeper for a room."

"My wife is pregnant, really pregnant."

"It's not my fault," barked the innkeeper.

St. Joseph answered, "It's not my fault either."

Samuel W. Bodman, Energy Secretary spoke at Georgia Institute of Technology making a bold challenge to invigorate teachings in science and technology as the enrolment in these disciplines is declining. He also spoke of the significant shift in foreign students coming to America for education in physics and science. After so many years of American dominance in science and technology, the rest of the world is clearly starting to catch up. Countries like China and India, which have been sending their best and brightest students to study in America, are now working to keep more of their young scholars at home. They are building their own networks of fine research universities, and forging their own partnerships with government and private industry, and establishing their own high-tech communities.

Tom Hanks, the actor, spoke well at Vassar College when he related how a gridlock of traffic of hundreds of cars can be resolved by just removing four cars, as a computer program deciphered. He then went on to take this simile to what the called the Power of Four. If merely four people out of a hundred can make gridlock go away by choosing not to use their car, imagine the other changes that can be wrought just by four of us out of a hundred. Take a hundred musicians in a depressed port city in Northern England, choose John, Paul, George and Ringo and you have "Hey Jude." Take a hundred computer geeks in Redmond, Wash., send 96 of them home and the remainder is called Microsoft. Take the Power of Four and apply it to any and every area of your concern. Politics: Four votes swung from one hundred into another hundred is the difference between gaining control and losing clout. Culture: two ticket buyers out of fifty can make a small, odd film profitable.

Mario Batali, a famous chef spoke at Rutgers College about life being a dish, a recipe and advised that “as you cook up your life, I hope you never let anyone else's recipe for success intimidate you or get in your way. Rules are overrated.”

Dr. Jane Goodall, a Primatologist, Founder Jane Goodall Institute spoke at the Rutgers University and informed the listeners that “We realize there is no sharp line dividing us from the rest of the animal kingdom, it's a very blurry line. And it leads to a new respect, not only for these chimpanzees, but the other amazing animals with whom we share this planet.”

Amy Gutmann, President, University of Pennsylvania spoke at Wesleyan University about democracy and concluded that mutual respect is the lifeblood of democracy.

James Towey, Director, White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives spoke at the Catholic University of America warning that scientists should not play God. “When we play creator and mix mice and men; when we tamper with the institutions of marriage and family; when we calibrate whose lives are worth living and whose are not; and when we discount the lives of our poor, are we not playing God?”